21 December, 2007

Buy Northern Lights and Upset the Vatican!

What idiots Catholics must be. I'm one of those people who never pay much attention to what new, blockbuster films are being released and I very rarely read a best-selling novel. Yet when the Vatican newspaper l'Osservatore Romano starts trying to suppress a book - and the film of the book - it really gets my attention.

The film is The Golden Compass (staring the strangely attractive Nicole Kidman) and it is based on a book by Philip Pullman called Northern Lights. The Vatican says the book is anti-religious (Big deal. So what?) and shows just how terrible it is to be without 'God'. To quote from l'Osservatore Romano, Pullman's writing apparently shows that "when man tries to eliminate God from his horizon, everything is reduced, made sad, cold and inhumane." Of course, if this is really what Pullman is trying to show, then he is simply wrong. All magical beings, including 'God', have been long since eliminated from my horizon and it has only made life more deep, cheerful, happy and humane. The idea that it could be otherwise seems nonsensical. Surely living in this real world of wonder and beauty has to be a richer and more rewarding experience than living in a bizarre fantasy world of gods and devils? What is wrong with these people?

On the other hand, it is possible that Pullman didn't havethat in mind at all. Perhaps he just wanted to write a good yarn – although it sounds like he did have a bit of a dig at the Church, God bless him – and he does belong to the British Humanist Association. (The cringing, wimps who made the film, apparently removed all references to the Church so that they wouldn't get into trouble with these fanatical nutcases. Serves them right, doesn't it, that they got their wrists slapped by Il Papa anyway!)

Of course, the truly stupid thing about the Vatican's rantings is that if The Golden Compass and Northern Lights really do paint such a bleak and terrible picture of what it is like to be without a god (on your horizon) wouldn't that make them great adverts for the Church? Wouldn't that make people want to give up their life of sense and sanity and start eating pretend flesh and drinking pretend blood like the Pope does? Yet the Catholic League in the USA is trying to organise a boycott of the film saying its purpose is "to bash Christianity and promote atheism.”
If only I thought that was the film's purpose! Then I'd rush out and see it. As it is, not even Nicole Kidman and what I imagine are great special effects will get me into a cinema these days. I might, however, buy the book. Pullman's membership of the National Secular Society being something of a recommendation. Sadly, Northern Lights is a fantasy and I don't really like fantasies unless they are allegorical or extremely entertaining. However, since Northern Lights appears to be both, maybe I will.

Which raises another issue. Why is the Vatican getting so flagellatory about a fantasy? Isn't the point of a thing declaring itself to be a fantasy to say ' Don't believe me. I'm not true.'? But then, the guys at the Vatican are used to reading fantasy and treating it as gospel. Maybe they just can't tell the difference anymore. Or maybe, since the film grossed US$26 million in its first weekend, they are getting nervous about competing products?

26 November, 2007

Sterilising My Drinking Water The Easy Way

One of the many things about living out here in the bush with which I am unfamiliar, is the way water is collected and treated. My new house has three separate water collection systems. One is a ginormous plastic tank which collects the run-off from the house and shed roofs. The next is a small pond (or 'dam' as we call them here) that collects water that runs off the ground. The third is a pair of large plastic tanks which constitute a waste treatment plant for sewerage and other domestic waste water. The waste water plant generates relatively clean water which it then pumps out into a garden sprinkling system. The dam water is untreated and also has a pump, which we can use as required for garden watering or whatever. Water from the ginormous plastic tank that catches rainwater from the roofs, is pumped up to the house to provide our domestic supply.

The dam water and the treated waste water don't bother me. We only use them on the garden (or will, once we have a garden). It's this rainwater/drinking water system that bothers me. This water comes off the roofs straight into the tank where it sits for very long periods before being pumped into the house. The tank is closed (apart from two fat overflow pipes with a mesh over their ends) but the water that flows into it comes from the roofs and gutters. Apart from whatever airborne dust, smoke, pollen, and other organic matter landing on the roofs, there must inevitably be bird droppings and dead insects falling onto them all the time. Surely this means the water can't be quite sterile and must have quite a lot of stuff living in it?

It's not such a big deal because Wifie and I never drink unfiltered tap water anyway and any other water we consume in our food is always put through some kind of cooking process that would sterilise it. Yet it is just a little bit unsettling that the water we consume has been used to wash a roof with and has then sat in a big tank in the hot sun for weeks or months before we get round to pumping it into the house! Also, the fact that more and more people around the world are drinking re-cycled rainwater from just this kind of system and no-one is jumping up and down and saying what a health hazard it is, is actually quite reassuring.

Yet I have been wondering what to do to remove any risk whatsoever. And I think I have the answer: make rainwater tanks out of clear plastic.

I came across this idea in August 2000 when New Scientist reported on an Oxfam meeting that discussed the use of solar disinfection to combat a shortage of chemical disinfectants in Assam, India. (Issue 2253, New Scientist magazine, 26 August 2000, page 14. You may need a New Scientist subscription to read this online. Otherwise, your library probably has it.) A team of Swiss researchers in Duebendorf has show that filling a plastic bottle with water and leaving it in the sun can effectively disinfect it in as little as one hour. Martin Wegelin, who headed the Swiss research team, says that if you paint half the plastic bottle black and stand it on corrugated iron, it will heat up much faster and cut the time needed for thorough disinfection. The combination of heat (the water temperature goes above 50 degrees C) and ultraviolet radiation kills most micro-organisms, including 99.9 per cent of Escherichia coli, Vibrio cholerae (which causes cholera), and the parasite Cryptosporidium (which causes severe diarrhoea). This last is particularly interesting to me since I remember an outbreak of Cryptosporidium and that other popular faeces-borne parasite Giardia intestinalis that hit the water treatment plants in Sydney one year when I was living there and meant that we all had to boil our tap-water before using it for several weeks until they got the outbreak under control.

So, if it works for a couple of litres in an old Coke bottle, maybe it also works for five thousand litres in a clear plastic rainwater tank. If no-one has done the science yet, remember you heard it here first and don't forget to add my name to the patent, please.

25 November, 2007

Change Of Life

So, here I am in my new home in the country – or the bush, as we learn to call it here. My life is in flux. For the first time, Wifie and I have moved away from the cities we have always been forced to live near and have taken up residence far, far from the madding crowd. So far, in fact, that we don't have mains water, or sewerage, or even a telephone line. The postie drops our mail half a kilometre away at the bottom of our 'drive' (a dirt track that is all but impassable in the wet). If it wasn't for that lonely pair of wires bringing electricity up here, we might be living a very much more primitive life. The nearest shop is twelve kilometres away, the nearest small town, twenty.

We live at the top of a thousand-metre-high hill and the forested valleys and hills of Queensland's Granite Belt sweep away below me in all directions (see above). Forty-six acres of those forests and hills belong to Wifie and me. It doesn't sound like a lot but, in several exploratory walks, we have not yet found all the boundaries and we still make amazing discoveries whenever we go wandering – granite bluffs, huge meadows, boulders as big houses, gorgeous, exotic plants (including three species of wild orchid so far) and beautiful forest glades. It is one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen – and I live there! The more gaudy bird-life includes crimson rosellas, king parrots, yellow-tailed black cockatoos, and eastern rosellas, and there are often wallabies in the 'garden' as well as feral pigs (not yet seen bet heard snuffling and grunting in the dark), lizards and snakes (including a gorgeous red-bellied black snake we found near the house the other day - see below). We've seen wild cats, a fox, rabbits and, in early Spring, the roads are full of long-necked turtles crossing at their leisure. The air is full of the sound of cicadas chirruping and, in the evenings, the frogs join in the song.

The ground immediately around the house has been cleared but nothing has been done with it so Wifie and I spend our time making plans for a garden. We've already planted a few fruit trees and we've put in some of the prettier native shrubs (grevilleas, bottle-brushes, banksias) but there is lots to do. Even this 'garden' is huge and we have to adjust to the idea that 'gardening' here will involve earth-movers and lorry-loads of materials. Our days of picking up a bag of gravel or mulch from the garden centre are over. Such things now need to be ordered by the cubic metre, delivered in trucks and spread by bobcat. Even the 'ordinary' garden tools are different now. Strimmers, mowers, weed-sprays and so on, that used to be adequate for a suburban home, we are replacing with heavyweight industrial equivalents. And, for the first time in my life, I own a chain saw and an axe. I got them so I could cut up wood for the wood-burning stove but now I see many other uses. A recent storm, which brought a small tree down across the drive a couple of weeks ago made me realise that a chain saw is an essential part of my new life. Without the means of clearing a fallen tree off your drive, you could be stranded up here!

And at night, when the skies are clear and the Moon is new, the Milky Way is a river of light that runs from horizon to horizon, turgid with stars - more stars than I have seen in my life before, more stars than I even knew were there. It is breathtaking. Astonishing. The glory of the Universe revealed just for the effort of lifting up your eyes! I watch satellites amble past, meteorites zip by, and whole galazies - the Large and Small Megallenic clouds - hanging like misty islands above me. And if you think I'm waxing a bit poetical here, all I can say is, you should see it and then we'll see who's totally blown away.

It's exciting, scary, humbling, and uplifting. It's a wonderful adventure and a dream come true. I am an immensely lucky person.

14 October, 2007

Machiavelli, The Prince And I

Well, that's another one off my list of Books I Really Ought To Read. I finally got round to finishing The Prince by Niccolò Machiavelli. And it wasn't at all what I expected.

For a start, Machiavelli himself seems so paltry. I imagined he would be a man of soaring vision, a man with a deep and convoluted mind, a rich and interesting character. Don't ask me why. What I discovered was a dry, rather dull pedant. In fact, an academic.

I've worked a lot with academics. I had six years studying at uni, three years post-doc research and nine years of collaborative industrial-academic research. So I know of what I speak. There is a type among academics – a very common type, I'm afraid. Intelligent, yet boring, this type will study even the most profound and exciting subjects like a caterpillar chewing at a leaf. They will consume what matter there is, digest it thoroughly, and produce neatly-packaged analyses that, while they contain the essence of what is to be learned, have robbed the subject of all colour and interest.

Essentially a historian rather than a scientist or philosopher, his 'big idea' seems to have been to dump all the quasi-religious, moralistic nonsense about how a leader gets his authority, or how he should operate and instead to look at what really goes on in the world of power-politics. The flat tone of the writing in The Prince is therefore matched by the flat moral tone of the ideas. Machiavelli sensibly concludes that the human race isn't particularly pleasant but from this he seems to deduce that doing unto others before they do unto you is a reasonable foundation for a personal ethic. Which may explain the basis of his analysis of the best ways to get and maintain power, which takes the success of the enterprise as the main criterion for judging the actors in it. It's not exactly that the ends justify the means, more that, since getting and keeping power is all that people strive for, any means to those particular ends are alright by Niccolò.

And why does that seem so academic? Because you see academics all the time who don't seem to connect at all with the real world of human emotion. For them, the world is a puzzle to be solved, a fact is a fact, the rules that govern the world are to be found and written down. Mostly, this is harmless. They get their kicks from solving hard puzzles – they get their kudos from solving harder puzzles than their peers, or solving them first. They like to believe that morality and ethics are irrelevant to their endeavour – primarily because they don't have the emotional maturity to deal with the complexities of real life. So they do their work for tobacco companies and religious think tanks, repressive regimes and greedy capitalists just as happily as they would for medical charities and universities in pluralist democracies. And this is what Machiavelli seems to have been like.

Ironically, I've sometimes heard Machiavelli referred to as a realist.

Now I don't know much about the art of war, nor about statecraft, and especially about the acquisition and exercise of power but I do know there was some pretty dodgy reasoning in The Prince. I suspect that, had anyone taken it to heart, it wouldn't have been a great success for them (although possibly it was better than anything else available at the time). I also don't know why Lorenzo de Medici, to whom the work was dedicated, didn't accept it wholeheartedly and rush off to unify Italy as Machiavelli wanted him to (perhaps, if he read it, he used the book to help him become Pope – which he achieved about a decade after the book was written).

The thing is this; if you'd just dreamed up a sure-fire scheme to allow someone to gain great power and then hold it, regardless of who got hurt, would you rush out to put it in the hands of a Medici?

27 September, 2007

Do Not Use A. F. Palmer For Your Removal

I recently moved house. I bitterly regret that I used the dreadful removalist A. F. Palmer. I have lots of experience moving house, including two international moves and one interstate move and I've used many different removalists but the worst by far was A. F. Palmer.

Astonishingly, A. F. Palmer failed to deliver a single item of my belongings to my new home! They almost made it once but - in a series of clownish errors of judgement that would have been funny if it wasn't so awful - they had to turn around and take everything away again. Thanks to the disgraceful lack of care, professionalism and service shown by A. F. Palmer, my wife and I ended up staying in a motel rather than sleeping in our new house. In fact, we spent a week in that motel - at our own expense - before we got the abysmal A. F. Palmer to deliver our furninture into a storage facility 20km from the new house. For which kindness, the money-grubbing A. F. Palmer charged us a further $1,200!! Then I hired a van (again at our expense) and my wife and I (retirees, you may recall) moved the contents of our home ourselves in a series of a dozen separate trips which took us another week to accomplish. During this enormous effort, we discovered that almost every stick of furniture we own - new stuff as well as cherished and well-cared-for old items - had been scratched, dented, broken or parts of it lost by that pathetic excuse for a removalist, A. F. Palmer.

Meanwhile, not a word of apology from the useless A. F. Palmer. Not a hint from them that they felt the slightest guilt or shame at what they had put us through. They took their money and ran like the scumbags they are.

Now that this terrible experience is behind us, I just feel it is my duty to tell everyone who might be considering a move; do not use A. F. Palmer. Tell your friends and relatives. Make sure everyone knows. Avoid A. F. Palmer like the plague. They showed no respect for my home or my property. They behaved in a completely unprofessional manner from beginning to end. And when things started to go wrong, A. F. Palmer became uncooperative, unhelpful, and even made things worse though their complete lack of care and judgement. A. F. Palmer battered my furniture, failed to deliver it and charged me more money for the privilige of getting it out of their hands so we could finish the job we paid them to do!

Nobody ever should use A. F. Palmer for a removal. A. F. Palmer is by far the worst removalist I have ever had the bad luck to encounter.

12 August, 2007

A Trades Union For Bloggers

I like trades unions. I think they are the best thing since sliced bread. The demise of the unions since the late nineteen seventies is one of the tragedies of our age – and something we will all live to regret. I've been in several trades unions in my time. I even sat on a picket line during a strike back in 1976 – it was boring as hell but I'm glad I did it. So you'd think I might be in favour of the current push to form a trades union for bloggers. After all, I'm a blogger aren't I?

But I'm not.

The thing is, unions exist to protect the interests of working people. Ordinary people like you and me don't have much clout when it comes to negotiation with our employers. In fact, employers can roll right over the interests of their employees if they feel like it and the current employer-biased legislation we all live under (of which Australia's IR laws are a typical example) grants employers legal support for the exercise of their already-one-sided power when it comes to negotiating employment contracts, removing and restricting benefits, and terminating employment. It is only by organising, by acting together, that working people have a power that is even vaguely comparable to that of their employers. It is only through collective bargaining and collective action that working people can possibly hope to get fair treatment from employers and from conservative governments.

That's why the trades unions exist. They are simply groups of working people, acting together to give themselves some say in the conditions under which they work.

So a trades union for bloggers doesn't even make any sense to me. Bloggers don't work for anyone. They don't negotiate their work contracts because they don't have any. They're not paid, they don't have conditions of employment, they don't have 'benefits' to win or protect and they can't be sacked. So what's it all about? Says Gerry Colby, president of the U.S.A.'s National Writers Union, “Bloggers are on our radar screen right now for approaching and recruiting into the union. We're trying to develop strategies to reach bloggers and encourage them to join."
The NWU has done a lot over the years to help freelance journalists. Journalism is one of those areas of employment which uses a lot of freelance labour and where employers were quick to understand the value of having a low-cost, vulnerable and dependent pool of casual labour. Many other employers have caught on and there is a big push on to reduce permanent staff and replace them with casual labour. My own area – information technology – has created a large body of freelance 'contractors' who live by taking individual, short-term contracts with employers, often through intermediary employment agencies (which take a big slice of the money they earn). The movement to casualise labour is so extensive that governments have had to change the tax laws to prevent these casual professionals from benefiting – at the taxman's cost – by running their own companies and taking the tax breaks. These days, for casual labour, there are almost no tax breaks at all and operating your own company to sell your own labour no longer offsets the financial disadvantages of casual labour in any way.

In this climate of throwing people out of full-time employment and then taxing them as if they were employed full-time, freelancers need the protection that only organisation in trades unions can offer – to set standard contracts, to help negotiate, to provide standard benefits (like healthcare, in those countries like the US where the state doesn't provide it) and to defend people against unfair dismissal, discrimination, harassment, and so on.

Now, some bloggers are essentially freelance journalists. It's a tiny, tiny minority but they are, of course, vocal. There may be only a few hundred of them worldwide, possibly a couple of thousand, but for these guys, membership of the NWU or a local equivalent would make sense. They're trying to sell their services as freelance writers and they should try to get the same union support. For the rest of us – the other 55 million – the idea of a union of bloggers, or of bloggers joining a union, is just nonsense. A bloggers' mutual support society or shopping club - so we can get 10% off our motor insurance or whatever - might make some sense, but not a bloggers' trades union.

14 July, 2007

Has The World Gone Mad?

It's been a strange week.

In the southern Iraqi town of Basra, fierce giant badgers are roaming the docks. The locals believe they were introduced by the British Army to spread panic but local experts say the animals are indigenous – just not often seen in the city. Giant, killer badgers are odd enough but what is much, much more disturbing is that people could think for a moment that the Brits set them loose on the town. What possible chance do the invading armies have of winning the 'hearts and minds' of the Iraqis if the conquered have such a complete and utter misconception of who their conquerors are?

Meanwhile, a 45-year-old man in Sydney has been on a rampage in a restored tank. He drove his tank at dead of night through several Sydney suburbs apparently targeting mobile phone towers. He managed to take out six mobile phone tower sheds and an electricity sub-station (easily confused with a mobile phone tower in the dark) before his tank stalled as he tried to demolish a seventh. Apart from trying to keep people out of his way, there wasn't much the police could do about it except watch. Now, I hate mobile phone operators as much as the next guy, but to spend all that time and money on buying and restoring a tank just so you can have a little rampage and knock down a few towers seems just a little over the top. Surely it would have been easier to start a socialist party, sweep the country in a landslide election and nationalise them all without compensation? Far less bother and so much more satisfying.

And then there was the guy in China who got married this week. The bride a normal-sized Chinese woman, 1.68m tall. He is the world's tallest man, Bao Xishun, who is 2.36m tall. It seems he's a really nice guy under all that enormousness but was driven to advertise for a wife – probably for all the obvious reasons. Curiously, he only got 20 replies. Now, if it had been the West, they'd have built a 'reality' TV show around it and had thousands of female contestants being slowly and tediously eliminated for months before finally picking some completely unsuitable extravert with outsize breasts to appear in the season finale on Mr. Bao's arm. As it was, there was a quiet courtship and the bride seems like a very nice person. Bao is famous not only for his record-breaking length but also for saving two sick dolphins by using his very long arms to pull plastic rubbish from their stomachs. But the really odd thing is, he's Chinese. Aren't those guys suppose to be small?

Finally (Ha! Finally! I didn't mention the mystery philanthropist in Japan who has left at least $40,000, in envelopes each containing $100, in public toilets around the country. Nor the fact that a member of the pop-group Queen has just finished writing up a PhD thesis he started in 1971 and which was rudely interrupted in 1974 when he took 33 years out to become a worldwide global mega rock guitar hero.) Finally, I should mention that Dr. Mohammed Haneef has at last been charged with 'recklessly providing resources to a terrorist organisation.' Dr. Haneef has been infamously held without charge in Australia for 13 days while being questioned by the police about alleged involvement with a UK terrorist group responsible for recent botched car bomb attacks. The strange thing is that, after all that questioning by Australian and British anti-terrorist police, the charge is that Dr. Haneef 'recklessly' (not intentionally) gave a phone SIM card to the terrorists. Stranger still, this kind of recklessness, under the new anti-terrorism laws (America's finest export to the world) could cost him a further 25 years in gaol. Of course, in law, 'reckless' implies that Dr. Haneef didn't care if the terrorists blew people up. That is, that he was indifferent to the consequences of what he did. The common usage of the word to mean something like 'foolishly unthinking' isn't what he has been charged with. It is quite possible, the charge says, that he could clearly foresee what would be done with the SIM card but he just didn't care. Which is a pretty strange thing to charge him with in itself, don't you think? The anti-terrorist laws have the concept of conspiracy to commit a terrorist offence. So why not use that? Presumably because there is no evidence for it – only evidence of the doctor's indifference.

06 July, 2007

Beachcombing With Kurt

I was talking to Wifie the other day and I pointed out that the length that hair grows to on different parts of your body is a function of the speed at which it grows and how long (on average) each hair lasts before it falls out. She looked at me in surprise and asked, 'How do you know that?' I just shrugged, and said, 'I dunno. How do I know most things I know?' Meaning, I just pick these things up, mostly from things I have read.

I am, in fact, a vast repository of arcane knowledge. For example, I know that the centre of our galaxy is in the direction of the constellation Saggitarius, that the wavelength of green light is about 500 to 550 nanometres, that the average length of a marriage in the West these days is under ten years, that Groucho Marx once said, 'I never forget a face, but in your case I'll be glad to make an exception.', that Karl Marx is buried in Highgate Cemetery, London, and so on and so on. I have no idea where most of it came from. I read a lot of stuff.

However, I noticed myself learning a piece of trivia today. I'm reading A Man Without A Country by Kurt Vonnegut and he mentioned in passing that Marco Polo brought back pasta (to Italy) from the Chinese. This struck me as such a singular fact that I know I will remember it. And this must be how I have learnt so much of what I know – by picking up interesting tidbits from novels, histories, biographies, science books, magazines, even TV shows and films. For example, I'm also reading Master and Man, a collection of short stories by Leo Tolstoy (and, yes, I often have two or three books on the go at once) and I'm discovering all kinds of interesting background about 19th Century Russian society, the care of horses, cobbling, how to navigate a horse-drawn sled in a snow-storm at night, and so on. Some will stick. Some will not. It's hard to tell, at this point, whether I will have retained anything from the experience in a year's time.

But the pasta-from-China thing will stay with me. I'm sure of that. As will the terrible sense of sadness that A Man Without A Country communicates. It's awful to think that Vonnegut was so disillusioned at the end of his life and so ashamed of what his country had become. It makes me want to have been able to comfort him – with something like, 'Don't worry about it. Nothing we become will even remember what America was in a million years' time,' or 'So what? We were just monkeys, playing a bit too roughly maybe. None of it really mattered.' You never know, it might have helped.

Anyway, I plan to keep A Man Without A Country handy and hope that, as I re-read it over the years, something more substantial than facts about pasta will stick to my neurons.

03 July, 2007

The Most Popular Posting On Earth

Is popularity among your goals, plans and hopes? Well, here is the blog posting that is going to make me famous, the one all my friends will be blogging about in their own relatively unpopular blogs. And I don't need to waste your time dealing with boring topics like sport, Iraq, jobs, work, careers or Microsoft. I don't even need to post a photo. All I need to do is write a couple of empty paragraphs that contain the top 100 most popular tags from Technorati's current listing (each shown in green bold text here). What fun! What entretenimiento! (which is entertainment in Spanish by the way, no need for your school or college Greek on my Weblog!)

Of course the easiest way to be popular on the Web is to talk either about movies, TV and celebrities, or about technology and the Internet. Articles about art and photography, religion and philosophy, science and politics all have their place but if you really want to score big, just mention Apple, Google, MySpace, podcasts, or Linux, or regurgitate any item of tech news you can find about events involving them. The blogsphere clearly devours a daily smorgasbord of culture, current affairs, fashion, style, shopping, music, photos, videos, reviews and sports but it is computers and the Internet that really click a blogger's links.

Perhaps someone should make a movie of the life of a blog reader. He (of course it's a he) would be at home, pursuing his tech hobbies, taking an online quiz perhaps, but plagued by dreams of the supernatural. Concerned about his health and wellness, his diary, or journal if you will, shows an increasing obsession with parties and nightlife, pets and animals as he slips into a personal hell of random romance and relationships. He tries travel, shooting terabytes of video, writing awful love poetry and worse software in exotic places. He neglects his business in the automotive industry, spurns his family and starts work as a survey design specialist for a media and marketing company that gets bought up by YouTube. Yet miscellaneous (misc.) thoughts, like pictures from his favourite multiplayer games, return to haunt him. The mysterious word 'moblog' runs in his head like música in a Spanish film (or la musique in a French one). In the closing scenes, he is saved by writing 'My Life in Food' and other funny books ('Allgemein Noticias' being his most popular and the best example of his quirky, multilingual 'humor'.)

There now, that should do it. I can hardly wait for my readership to go through the roof!

01 July, 2007

Relatively Simple Book On Relativity

It bothers me sometimes that I don't have a really good grasp of relativity. So much so that I was driven recently to read Simply Einstein: Relativity Demystified by Richard Wolfson. I've got to say it was probably the clearest exposition of special relativity I have ever read but was a real let-down when it came to general relativity.

Interestingly, it was one of those attempts to present the argument for relativity rather than just to blast away at the reader with maths. As such, it was almost just what I wanted. I tend to believe that when somebody tries to explain something and what they're telling me sounds confused or dogmatic, it is usually because they don't really understand their subject well enough to explain it. If I'm right, Wolfson certainly has a good grasp on special relativity since he was as clear as could be. If I have one criticism, it is that he tended to repeat himself an awful lot in his attempt to keep his audience with him. However, having done such a sterling job on special relativity, his treatment of general relativity was pretty sketchy. He seems to think that he can't present the reasoning behind general relativity the way he can with special relativity. Maybe it's true. Maybe there's so much else you need to know to get through the arguments that he knew he couldn't get it all into a slim paperback but, honestly, I'd have been happy to go through it all even if the book had been ten times as thick.

The lack of maths was also a bit frustrating. Don't get me wrong, I'd rather hear arguments in words rather than symbols any day – and I must admit, my facility with maths is verging on pathetic – but there were points where I simply needed it. For example, Maxwell's equations are so important in the argument that I wish he'd put them in (instead of just talking about them for several pages) and I really would have liked to get into the geometry of spacetime, even if it is hard. But all is not lost. I have found I can supplement a well-argued book with articles from Wikipedia – which tend to be very short on explanation and quite heavy on maths. (Check out special relativity, general relativity and the Maxwell equations for example.)

I finished the book with the feeling that I hadn't actually learned anything new (well, maybe a couple of new insights or emphases). This, I suppose, reflects the fact that I've actually read lots of other layman-oriented material on the subject. At least it shows I've understood what I already think I know! It also shows, I suppose, that if I want to learn any more about it, I'm going to have to get into more heavyweight books. Wolfson suggests a few and, having established his credentials as a teacher with me, I'd probably accept his recommendations next time I feel the urge to dig deeper into this.

Meanwhile, if you are looking for a very easy-to-read exposition on what relativity is all about – even if you don't know anything about it and gave up maths as a lost cause years ago – Simply Einstein: Relativity Demystified by Richard Wolfson is the book for you. As for me, I could really do with knowing more about quantum mechanics...

28 June, 2007

Child Sex Abuse Online is Nothing New

It's interesting that the American military is asking the Australian government to 'waive its authority' in the case of one of their sailors charged with grooming an Australian child for sex over the internet, to send him home and let them deal with it. (Of course, they didn't send David Hicks home – or even charge him with anything for five years – but then, the Australian government didn't actually ask for him back.) And now the media is in a froth (again) over how paedophiles are stalking children in chat rooms, etc.. Apparently, the situation is so bad that the police only have to post a pretend profile of a 14 year-old girl, say, on MySpace (or wherever) and they are immediately bombarded with offers of offers of friendship by Strange Men. Like shooting fish in a barrel.

The pundits are out with their folk psychology suggesting how the feeling of anonymity the internet gives these men encourages them to pursue their child molestation fantasies past the point where they are normally able. They are alarmed that this predation and stalking of children is on the increase. They are shocked that paedophilia seems to be getting more popular as a mental disorder. The ones that make the news are just the tip of a large and growing iceberg. And so on.

But the whole internet stalking thing seems to require a simpler and less dramatic explanation.
Sociology is not for the faint-hearted. In fact any student of human nature is likely to learn lots of things they might have preferred not to know. For instance, I once learned that sexual abuse of girls by their fathers is far more common in situations where the children and adults have to share the same sleeping area. Thus, in the UK, this kind of incest was far more common in the heyday of the industrial revolution when squalid overcrowding was the norm in the big cities. Today, it is more common now in poor societies than in rich and in the poorest segments of rich societies than in the wealthiest. (No coincidence then that the Australian Federal Police and the Army are forming a task force as we speak to go up to the Northern Territory and quash alleged rampant child abuse in Aboriginal communities.) What can you conclude about this except that the amount of temptation and opportunity to commit incestuous child abuse is all that separates the perpetrators from the rest.

In fact, it seems to be the case for child sex abuse in general (typically, we're talking about adult males preying on under-age females here – although little boys also get their share of the unwanted attention). Which is probably why our societies just happen to be organised so as to keep men and girls apart – on the whole – and why it's in those areas of life where men and girls are brought together that the most sex abuse occurs (the home and schools).

So why is it a surprise that the internet – a great big place where adult males and children are all squished together in close proximity – is proving to be such a hotbed of child sex abuse? Suddenly, all these men – whom history has shown need only to get enough temptation to start yielding to it – are surrounded by the little cuties they are normally kept away from. Isn't it obvious that they are going to go on a feeding frenzy?

And there's only one tried and tested remedy for the situation. Do what we do out in the physical world and arrange things online so that the men and the girls (and the boys) are kept apart.

26 June, 2007

Intelligent Design Defeated By Intelligent Politicians

I see from The Register (and elsewhere) that the UK government has declared its intention to keep Creationism out of the classroom. Specifically, they concluded that “intelligent design” is a religion and should not be taught as science in British schools. To quote them:

The Government is aware that a number of concerns
have been raised in the media and elsewhere as to
whether creationism and intelligent design have a place
in science lessons. The Government is clear that
creationism and intelligent design are not part of the
science National Curriculum programmes of study and
should not be taught as science.

It is so rare that a government ever does anything so sensible and praiseworthy, that I'd like to take this opportunity to express my congratulations to the people who made this decision. 'Intelligent design' is a pernicious, fraudulent and disgraceful attempt to deceive people into accepting magic as legitimate science. It is extremely heartening to see that there are people in the British government who are clever enough and level-headed enough to reject it out of hand.
The decision comes in response to an online petition organised by James Rocks of the Science, Just Science campaign. From the bottom of my nouveau-Australian heart, I'd like to say, “Good on ya, Jim!”

Over in the USA, it's another story. The outcome of the battle there between good sense and religious mania is still moot and the cowardice and, sometimes, the insanity of American politicians has given succour to the forces of madness. The amazing fact is that the USA is a country where three of the Republican presidential candidates do not believe in evolution! (The mind boggles! Do they also think the Earth is flat and the Sun revolves around it? If not, why not?) Perhaps this seems just normal or even reasonable for an American (or maybe most Americans don't even care) but, from the outside looking in, American religiosity just looks crazy – like looking at ranting Muslim leaders condemning 'the great Satan', or the old Soviet regime's attempts to deny the evidence of genetics for ideological reasons. This kind of head-in-the-sand Christianity belongs to an ancient, unenlightened world and to see it flourishing in the USA is somewhat scary.

Yet I'd be happy to leave them to it (except that it will eventually bring down their economy – look at how research has been weakening under George Bush). However, the American churches are funding the lobby groups and the 'research institutes' that are distributing Creationist propaganda around the world. So it's not just their problem anymore. It's everybody's. Which means more governments ought to take a stand, like the UK has just done, and keep these crazy people out of our kids' heads.

24 June, 2007

War, What Is It Good For?

Today, I offer you a few quotes on the subject of war. Let's start with one of my favourite thinkers.

"He who joyfully marches to music rank and file, has already earned my contempt. He has been given a large brain by mistake, since for him the spinal cord would surely suffice. This disgrace to civilization should be done away with at once. Heroism at command, how violently I hate all this, how despicable and ignoble war is; I would rather be torn to shreds than be a part of so base an action. It is my conviction that killing under the cloak of war is nothing but an act of murder." (Albert Einstein)

“What a country calls its vital economic interests are not the things which enable its citizens to live, but the things which enable it to make war. Petrol is much more likely than wheat to be a cause of international conflict.” (Simone Weil)

“It is well that war is so terrible - otherwise we would grow too fond of it.” (General Robert E. Lee)

“I can picture in my mind a world without war, a world without hate. And I can picture us attacking that world, because they'd never expect it.” (Jack Handy)

“You can no more win a war than you can win an earthquake.” (Jeannette Rankin)

“Our first and most pressing problem is how to do away with warfare as a method of solving conflicts between national groups within a society who have different views about how the society is to run.” (Margaret Mead)

“I'm glad I didn't have to fight in any war. I'm glad I didn't have to pick up a gun. I'm glad I didn't get killed or kill somebody. I hope my kids enjoy the same lack of manhood.” (Tom Hanks)

“War is a cowardly escape from the problems of peace.” (Thomas Mann)

“War is delightful to those who have never experienced it.” (Erasmus)

“There never was a good war or a bad peace.” (Benjamin Franklin)

“I hate war as only a soldier who has lived it can, only as one who has seen its brutality, its futility, its stupidity.” (Dwight Eisenhower)

Fun, eh? The penultimate word goes to Kevin Rudd. Why he took so many years to come to see what was blindingly obvious to many of us before the invasion of Iraq ever began, is between him and his political ambitions.

“[The war in Iraq] has been the greatest single misfire and miscalculation of Australia's national security interests since Vietnam.” (Kevin Rudd, leader of the Australian Labor Party)

And for the last word – and my all-time favourite war quote – let's go back to Albert Einstein:

"I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones." (Albert Einstein)

23 June, 2007

Soul vs Brain

How long will it be before we believe that robots have souls?

I can understand where the idea of an immortal soul comes from. A human life is a very strange thing. Snuff it out and the pile of meat and bones it used to animate flops down, useless and empty. To anyone familiar with the sight of people dying - as I suppose ordinary folk were not so very long ago - it must seem as if a vital spark inhabits the body and, once it is gone, leaves behind a hulk, a mere shell. And if this animating spirit can inhabit a body to bring it life, why not suppose it can leave the body and go elsewhere after death?

Of course, there is a better explanation but one that is so much more complicated and difficult to grasp, that most people find it hard to believe. The idea that the brain is an information processing device running a series of programs than manage and control the body is just too hard for many people to accept - especially when you throw in the strange reflexivity of the device that gives us the impression of consciousness, self-awareness and free will. The brain is the most complicated mechanism that we know - orders of magnitude more complicated than we have ever built. It makes our cities and phone networks, supercomputers and the Internet look like child's-play. It works in ways we have only recently begun to understand and much of what it does is still a complete mystery.

Why is the brain-as-computing-device a better explanation for how a person can be alive and then dead than the soul-as-animating-spirit explanation? Simply because there is masses of evidence that a person's life depends on a functioning brain, the mechanisms by which the brain works all operate on the self-same principles as other biological, chemical and electrical systems (so our understanding of the brain ties in precisely with our understanding of chemistry, physics and biology and therefore all the evidence for those disciplines has to be heaped onto the balance in favour), the simulations of brain functions we have begun building in computer software and in electronic devices actually work to produce the results we would expect, and the brain explanation is detailed and accurate enough now for us to build useful devices which interface to the brain to provide sensory input (hearing and eyesight in particular), to allow mental control of other devices, and even to replace bits of damaged brain. The soul explanation, on the other habd, stands isolated and unconnected to anything else we know. It is simply magic, it doesn't help explain anything else, and it has no useful applications.

Yet people still prefer the simplistic, magical, soul explanation. And this in spite of a very common demonstration of how the brain explanation works, which most of us see every day. When we turn on a computer and run a piece of software, the machine becomes 'alive' in a very limited way. It responds, it behaves, it does things. Turn the computer off and it dies. Where did that life go? It was conjured up out of nothing - or so it seems - and then disappears into nowhere. The thing is, a computer is so obviously not alive that most people miss the analogy altogether. They just don't see themselves as the same type of thing at all, being unable to abstract away from the obvious differences to the core similarities.

But that may well change when we have humanoid robots - something which is not too many decades away now. Then the superficial similarities will be overwhelming and the machine will seem so much more alive than a car or a TV or a desktop computer. That's when I think people will begin to suppose robots have souls, that they are truly alive, and that they share with us our supposed divine nature. Perhaps, if the robots themselves are clever enough (but not too clever) they will come to share our simple-minded beliefs.

20 June, 2007

A New Climate For Australia

Tim Flannery, Professor of Earth Sciences at Macquarie University and Chair of the Copenhagen Climate Council, wrote the editorial in this week's New Scientist (16th June 2007) and I'd like to summarise what he said, just because if it is repeated often enough, our cloth-eared politicians might just hear it.

  • Southern and eastern Australia has lost about 20% of its rainfall in the last 50 years.

  • The decline in flow of Australian rivers in the same period is about 70% (no, that's not a typo)

  • Flannery says we should stop talking about 'the drought' – the worst in a thousand years, some say – because it is a transient phenomenon. Instead, we should start talking about 'the new climate'.

  • Although rainfall has increased in the sparsely-populated north-west, the likely cause is Asian haze shifting the monsoon. Politicians wanting to pipe this water south and east, or move people up to where the water is, are therefore gambling on Asia not cleaning up its air pollution.

  • The only way for Australia to survive is for it to make far more efficient use of the little water it has left.

  • The price of water needs to reflect its value in the new climate – so that industry and individuals do not squander it.

  • Australia needs to shift to a new energy economy – and fast. That means shutting down the old water-guzzling, pollution spewing, coal-fired generators and finding clean alternatives.

  • Australia needs a new and efficient irrigation system. Fixing up the existing one just isn't good enough.

  • The cities need to catch their own water instead of relying on dams which can no longer do the job. Installing water tanks for every house is not only more economical than building new dams but with the river flows falling at three times the rate that rainfall is decreasing, catching and using rainwater in the cities is the only long-term solution.

  • Recycling of water and building desalination plants are measures that should be put in place at once (Brisbane, for example, may have only 18 months before it runs dry).

  • Finally, Australia should throw its voice and influence behind global efforts to cut carbon emissions. It should ratify the Kyoto treaty (and sod the USA). As one of the early casualties of global warming, instead of dragging its feet, Australia should be out in front, urging on global efforts to save us all from the even worse times that lie ahead.

I don't think Flannery could have put it any more clearly but, just in case you missed the message Australia: We're in trouble. We need to act fast. There's an election coming next year. Vote to save the country. Meanwhile, save water.

19 June, 2007

Moving House? How Did That Happen?

What's the collective noun for a group of estate agents? Well, whatever it is, I just had one tramping through my house.

Yes, after seven years in Karana Downs – the forgotten suburb of western Brisbane – I'm selling up and moving on. At least, I think I am. There is so much uncertainty about how much to ask, whether anyone will make an offer, whether the people I want to buy from will accept my offer, whether the timing will be right, and so on, that it seems just as likely to me that I'll still be here next year as that I'll actually sell up and move. Which could be OK because the last three times I moved house, Ivowed never to do it again.

So, if I seem a little distracted over the next few weeks, it could be because I'm juggling the 8,000 things I need to do with my obligations to you, dear Reader.

Y'know, it funny. Ten days ago I didn't know I'd be moving soon. Wifie and I have vaguely thought about it – especially since I retired and I'm no longer tied to the city for work. We've even started browsing estate agents' windows when we go travelling, to see what might be on offer wherever we happen to be. Which is how we came across a particular property while we were down south last week, popped out to have a look at it, and thought 'What the hey? Let's go live there.'

It's a nice house. Nothing fancy. But it is set 1,000 metres up in the granite hills of the New England Table Land and the views are spectacular. It also has 46 acres of unspoilt forest and is surrounded on three sides by State Forest with a gigantic fruit farm on the fourth. It's the kind of place where a man could grow old watching the sun set over the distant mountains, keep himself active walking in the forests and chopping wood for the stove, and watch the wallabies and parrots outside his office window whilst writing his blog. (That is, I'd be writing the blog, of course, the wallabies would be, well, bouncing and stuff. Honest. This is really written by me. No wallabies are involved at all, except, perhaps, in an entertainment capacity, if the buying and selling thing works out.)

Another thing about living at 1,000 m is that you get real seasons. Sometimes, it even snows up there! That'll be nice.

Meanwhile, I'm in a sort of daze. The decision to go just sort of made itself and, having kicked the machinery into action, I'm now being carried along by it from one hugely expensive activity to another – and I probably will be for the next few months, until the wheels stop spinning and I find myself sitting in a house full of boxes at the top of a granite hill, blinking at Wifie in amazement.

17 June, 2007

Scramjets Are Taking Off

I've been watching Australia's work on scramjets with interest for a few years now, mildly pleased that the country is doing something vaguely space-related. A recent milestone in this work is a successful test-flight, a couple of days ago, of a scramjet that took off from Woomera, South Australia and flew at Mach 10 at a height of 530 km before falling to the ground (as planned).

Now Mach 10 is fast but not nearly as fast as these things could go. Speeds of up to Mach 25 are considered possible, and this, they say, would dramatically reduce the cost of putting a payload into orbit (for which a speed of Mach 30 is needed – just a bit of an extra nudge from a rocket booster would do the trick) and would revolutionise commercial air travel.

But would it?

Scramjets are essentially simple devices. You push air into one end of a tube at supersonic speeds (between Mach 5 and Mach 7 – so you need to strap on a rocket or a ramjet to get them started), pass it through a constriction to compress it a bit, then burn a fuel with it (hydrogen, say) and vent the exhaust gasses (now moving much faster than the intake speed) out the back. The complexity lies in managing the supersonic flow of air and burning fuel in the engine, ensuring a complete mix and burn of the fuel within the engine during the very brief period that is available, and finding designs, materials and cooling systems that can cope with the extreme heat that is generated by friction with the air. Pushing a scramjet along at Mach 25 generates similar amounts of heat to a spacecraft re-entering the atmosphere – and for considerably longer if the often-quoted trip-times of 2 hours between Sydney and LA are ever achieved.

So, you need to use a rocket to get it airborne and going fast enough to work, when it's working, you're barrelling through the upper atmosphere like a meteorite, and then you need some other kind of engine to get it back to a safe landing (unless you glide it down like a space shuttle – with all the air traffic control problems that would cause!) Even if you weren't considering putting people inside such a vehicle and planned to use it to put payloads in space, you now need two rocket engines (one for take-off and one for orbital insertion) and you have two periods of re-entry-style heating to worry about (a scramjet can't just go straight up like a rocket – it hasn't got the thrust required – so it needs to travel along in the atmosphere until it has built up enough speed). Given the problems NASA has with the shuttle and its ceramic heat shield, I can't see a future scramjet being any less problematic.

Nevertheless, once all these difficulties have been surmounted, scramjets should be able to get into space more cheaply than a rocket could, and they should be able to get from one point on the Earth to another in dramatically shorter times than even the best military jets. Which sort of explains why, despite all the talk of revolutionising commercial air travel, it is the USA's Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency and Australia's Defence Science and Technology Organisation which were the collaborator's on Saturday's test.

15 June, 2007

Art For Art's Sake

I don't suppose I'll ever understand Art. I mean, I get the representational painting stuff – especially all that soft porn that artists have always churned out for rich guys who like to con themselves it's somehow cultivated to ogle fat, naked broads, or cute little ballet dancers. And it's the same with sculpture – naked boys and women mostly – depending on the patron's taste. It's when it all gets abstract, when it's all about ideas, or moods, that it goes beyond my ken.

I remember when I first noticed that Art was getting weird. It was an exhibit in the UK's Tate Gallery – called something like '49 Bricks' – which was, quite literally, 49 bricks. There was also, some time later, a life-sized submarine made out of old car tyres. Later on still, 'artists' became more shocking and often quite disgusting. The work of Damien Hirst springs to mind – you know, the guy who sticks whole or parts of animals in formaldehyde and then puts them on show. Or they're just odd, like the recent sculpture 'My Sweet Lord', a life-size statue of Jesus done in chocolate by Cosimo Cavallaro. I can see how this would offend people (especially the artist's view that visitors to his exhibition might like to lick the naked statue) but I can't see what makes it Art.

There are people who cover cliffs in white plastic, others who sprinkle used condoms and other detritus on their own unmade bed and exhibit it around the world, and then there's artist Mark McGowan who just last week ate a corgi as a piece of 'performance art'.

Is it just me, or does this parade of freakishness simply signify that artists are desperate and unimaginative these days? Or could it be that The Art World has gradually come to be dominated by emotionally disturbed exhibitionists and, since the people who get to define what Art is are the people who produce it, Art has come to mean something altogether different from what it used to? Art seems so far removed now from what ordinary people can understand or enjoy, it seems very much to have gone the way that 'serious music' did in the 20th Century, which ended up in chaos and disarray. Serious music is pretty much dead now. It left its audience behind many years ago and sailed off, unlamented and largely ignored, into the sunset. Art is pretty obviously going the same way, with 'serious' artists talking among themselves and to themselves as the world turns away and leaves them to it.

Meaning the real artists of our age must be doing something else now – making films and TV shows, perhaps, designing software and electrical appliances, or taking photographs, building cars, designing new viruses. To find them, we probably just need to look to see where the audiences have gone.

Commitment Ain't What It Used To Be

Daughter alerts me to the fact that something interesting is going on with relationships among the young. It seems that men have started chastising women for their lack of commitment!
However normal this might sound to you under-25s, to those of us brought up in the unenlightened '70s, this is a very weird turn of events. Lack of commitment, you see, has always been what women accused men of. In the good old days, men were the ones wanting to 'play the field', 'sow their wild oats', and generally enjoy their sexual freedom for as long as possible before being 'tied down' to a single partner. Now, it seems, men are getting a taste of what it's like on the receiving end – and they don't like it at all.

And not only are they bewailing their womenfolk's lack of commitment but they are advertising their own willingness to commit as a 'selling point' in the sexual marketplace! Not only has the world gone mad but none of these New Men seems to be questioning the value of this 'commitment' they all now prize so much.

After all, what does it mean? If a man commits to a woman (or vice versa), are they saying something equivalent to the marriage vows? That they will stick to their partner no matter what, till death do them part? With the average marriage lasting under ten years these days, it hardly seems likely. And, anyway, there are plenty of darned good reasons to call a halt to a relationship: infidelity, cruelty, or just plain incompatibility, for example. The idea that you would stay together despite a serious problem like that is just madness – only more pain and unhappiness could possibly ensue.

No, the only sense in which commitment makes sense is an agreement to commit to try your best. This is the agreement Wifie and I have (and it's one we are still committed to after 17 years). No-one should ever commit to staying together no matter what. It's an insane notion. It would mean staying together despite the misery that one or both of you felt, it would mean staying together in a relationship that was damaging or degrading or disgusting. And it would mean making any children live through it too! Which is even worse!

I know women have always gone on about how they want a man 'who isn't afraid to commit.' Now, it seems, the guys have taken up the lament and, in what looks like a rather pathetic attempt to model themselves as 'what women want', they are even offering commitment as an inducement. But take a closer look at what this all means, people! Commitment is a truly hideous notion (like many notions left over from our pre-sensible past) and should be banished from your vocabulary. Ask for someone who will like you, someone who will care for you, someone with a willingness to work through difficulties, someone who will be honest with you and treat you with dignity and respect. But don't ask for commitment and don't offer it, unless you are willing to risk a life without happiness and without love.

Be careful what you wish for!

10 June, 2007

The Tin Men

Birthdays are great. People give you things. And if there's one thing I like, it's things. If there's another thing I like, it's ideas. So a thing full of ideas is the perfect gift for me. Something like a book, for example.

Among the haul this year, I got a book I've been vaguely searching for for years and years; The Tin Men by Michael Frayn. This is Michael Frayn's first novel and was published in 1965. As you may know, Frayn is one of my favourite authors. As Wikipedia so dryly puts it, 'His works often raise philosophical questions in a humorous context.' Well what a start he made with this one. I first read it when I was 11 or 12 and it had me in stitches. I couldn't put it down and read it from cover to cover in a single sitting, laughing aloud for most of that time.

For many years now, I've had a hankering to re-read it, curious as to whether I'd still find it funny. One of the reasons I might not is that The Tin Men is set in a computer automation research institution (what we might now call an Artificial Intelligence Lab) and I spent a lot of my own career in AI Labs. So what seemed a fascinating comic premise at the age of 12 might, 40 years on, just seem silly and ill-informed. So I settled down with feelings of excitement and trepidation to re-live my boyhood experience.

Of course, the writing was excellent – even in his first novel – and the fast-paced, farcical plot, was just as much fun as I remembered. Sadly, the book had dated but, strangely, not in relation to artificial intelligence (which is still stumbling about in the same sort of fields as Frayn's hapless researchers) but in the extent to which attitudes and language have changed since the sixties. Thankfully, this didn't detract from the pleasure of reading this great little book again. And, despite being so much older and so much more jaded than I was then, I still laughed out loud in places. Perhaps what I have lost in freshness and naïveté, I have gained in experience and sophistication. I may not have been rolling on the floor but I greatly appreciated the wit and cleverness of the book.

The AI thing was curious though. While I don't know of any real life stories quite like Frayn's ethical robots wrestling together as they each try to throw the other out of a sinking boat (with a crowd of research assistants making bets as they watched) much of what has gone on over the years has been quite silly. Also, I was astonished to find that the newspaper-headline generating program I wrote in the mid 1980s was straight out of The Tin Men. I had thought I was being original, yet must have had Frayn's idea lodged in my subconscious all along. Similarly, there is Douglas Adams' electric monk from the first of the Dirk Gently novels, which was built to believe all the improbable things an over-automated society could no longer make the effort to believe. There it was, also described by Frayn more than twenty years before Adams re-invented it!

Nice to be in such good company.

09 June, 2007

Equality Beyond Humanity

Should the great apes be granted rights to life, liberty and freedom from torture? Well the Great Ape Project says they should. There is almost no doubt that, like human beings, the other great apes are clever, self-aware, emotionally complex and horribly capable of suffering. There is also no doubt that they, unlike human beings, are quickly going extinct. If the wild populations of chimps, bonobos, gorillas and orang utans are not gone in my lifetime, they will be gone in my daughter's. Something has to be done urgently if we want to save them.

Of course most people don't want to save them and that's the main problem they face. Some people are eating them. So called 'bush meat' is not just popular with starving people in remote jungles, it now has a worldwide customer-base - about 12,000 tonnes of bush meat (not all of it great apes of course) is imported to the UK each year, for instance.

But even if people don't eat gorillas and chimps, the chances are they are totally indifferent to their plight. Scientific work and medical research around the world is the very least of it. It is the huge, global habitat destruction that is crushing these creatures out of existence. And the political debate is on the effects of deforestation on global warming and therefore on our own economies. Never mind the world-wide genocide that is happening.

A recent news article about a rebel group threatening to kill mountain gorillas in the Congo is indicative of the contempt in which so many people hold the lives of our poor cousins. But it also shows up the enormous problems organisations like GAP face in securing rights for the great apes. This same rebel group killed a wildlife officer and wounded three people just before making their threat about the gorillas. If they don't care about human life, why should we expect them to care about the lives of apes? If we think cheap paper and furniture is so incredibly important that we have to chop down the world's forests, then of course we're going to let these almost-human relatives die for the sake of it. If we let people sit in our city streets and beg for food, or let our police and intelligence agencies torture our enemies, or lock up poor people for crimes that rich people get away with, what are the chances we will show compassion to any creature unable to speak out for itself - however much like us it is?

02 June, 2007

A Few Of My Favourite Things

How rich a source of research material the Web must be for sociologists. I imagine sociology departments in universities no longer train people in field observation techniques since no-one there ever leaves the building anymore. They just sit in front of computer screens, surfing. And, let's face it, the stuff that's out there – especially in blogs – must be so much more revealing of people's lives than 'structured interviews' and 'semantic differentials' ever were (or even my favourite sociological technique: 'micro-phenomenological sabotage').

So, in the spirit of feeding these 'surfiologists' a bit more data, and in order to recommend some great websites, I list here the ten most frequently-used links on my browser's 'favourites' list:
  1. Google. Of course, I need say nothing about this site as you know it well already. It used to be better before the sponsored links appeared but it's still my favourite search engine. I like to use the local version (google.com.au, rather than google.com) because it's biased to local content (although this can sometimes be a disadvantage.)
  2. Wikipedia. Anyone who has read my blog and followed any of the links will know I love Wikipedia. Yes, there are many who say this online encyclopaedia isn't quite as good as Britannica but so what? It's free, it's easy to navigate, the coverage is pretty damned good, and I've yet to find a single article I seriously object to.
  3. Technorati. This is a curious but very popular site. People with blogs register with Technorati and then Technorati tracks those blogs, ranking them for 'authority' (how many other blogs linked there recently) and providing a search engine that returns only blog postings. If you have a blog register it here. Or if you just like blogs, this is a fascinating site.
  4. The Dilbert Archive. Without my daily fix of Dilbert, I go into withdrawal. I know it's not everyone's cup of tea but when you have spent your whole career working in large, high-tech corporations, as I have, Scott Adams' take on it rings very true. Sometimes the jokes are so close to the knuckle, I've suspected he must have spies working in the same building.
  5. Astronomy Picture of the Day. Run by NASA, this site is a mine of information on astronomy but, more than this, it is an endless source of beautiful pictures of our gorgeous Universe. I know I'm very nerdy about this but it seems so cool to me that I can have a photo of a methane ocean on Titan as my screen background one day, and the incredible M65 spiral galaxy the next.
  6. Slashdot. 'News for nerds, stuff that matters' is this site's slogan and I suppose that says everything about me because I find Slashdot's daily news round-up usually has several interesting items. Today, there was a piece about metamorphic multijunction concentrator photoelectric cells. Now where else am I going to find news like that?
  7. Pageflakes. Yet Slashdot cannot supply all a nerd's daily news intake. For that, you need an RSS feed reader. I've tried a few but by far the best is Pageflakes. That's because it is a customisable, personalised site with hundreds of different widgets to choose from. The feed reader is just one of them. So I have several pages full of RSS feed widgets (categorised into; international news, local news, tech news, tech zines, etc.) plus other, useful ones that (for example) do currency conversions, show me my local weather, display random photos from Flickr, present selected quotes of the day, even a clock. Have a look at my Pageflakes home page.
  8. Blogger. Blogger is Google's blog service. You can go to Blogger and start up a blog for free, then manage and maintain it with the tools they provide. It's all pretty easy. There are many, many other blog services around but I like Google. You can even get free blogging software to download and install on your own website – but why bother when Blogger takes all the pain out of it? It's on my list because I go there nearly every day to add a new blog posting.
  9. Itools – Language Tools. This gives me a multi-dictionary search and a multi thesaurus search. What can I say, I'm a writer, this is an essential tool.
  10. W3Schools Online Web Tutorials. The Web is just full of fantastic free stuff and this collection of tutorials on web programming is one of the best examples. It's where I learned HTML, XML and PHP and I stop by fairly frequently when I need to learn new stuff (like the 'server-side includes' I needed for the Save The Wesley Pool site I did recently).

30 May, 2007

Buy The Farm And Keep The View

I live in a city of about two million people that is growing at the rate of 1,500 people per week. Our here in the outer suburbs, the growth rate is faster than the average and this can be seen in the very large housing estates that are being built all around this area and the way that arterial roads between here and the CBD, which used to be clear ten years ago, are now slow-moving traffic jams at almost all times of the day. Of course, people like me live out here to be away from the high-density housing, the noise of traffic, and the misery of too many neighbours. Also for the views across open farmland which I now enjoy.

Unfortunately, the farmer opposite has sold part of his farm to a developer and there is a new housing estate being built a little way up the river from me. It won't spoil the views much but it is bound to increase the noise levels and wreck the peace of the place. I don't mind it too much (although we'll probably sell up and move on sooner or later) and you've got to put 1,500 people a week somewhere. You can't blame the farer either. The piece of land he's sold (maybe a third of his farm) will probably end up with 400 houses on it and, at local land prices, I reckon he must have got $4 million for it. It's just too tempting for a struggling farmer to resist. But it did start me wondering if there might not be a better way.

I would guess that there could be 20 houses whose views will be spoilt by this new estate and probably all of them will suffer a significant drop in the values of their own homes. (They'll also have to suffer at least 400 more cars on the road to the city each morning.) So what if they had bought the land from the farmer instead?

They would each have needed to raise a mortgage of $200,000 to equal the developer's offer and that might seem a bit too steep for some (although I'd say the folk around here are good for it – and, God knows, land in Brisbane is a very good investment, as you can imagine.) But what if they only had to raise, say, a quarter of that, or a tenth even, to keep the farmer happy? An infusion of about half a million into the farmer's bank account might be all he really needed – especially if he still retains a controlling interest in the land and the right to continue to farm it – while costing the 20 home-owners just $25,000 each. In fact, through a series of deals like this over the next couple of decades, the people surrounding the farm could end up owning it, the farmer could still end up farming it, and the views would be preserved. Or, if the farmer decides to take the money and run, they'd end up owning a farm they could let to tenants, or leave to go wild, or convert into a local, private leisure amenity.

Why has no-one put together the legal and financial packaging for this kind of deal? Are there any lawyers or bankers out there who want to start a business in setting up neighbourhood open land preservation deals? It could be a winner.

29 May, 2007

Coming of Age In Modern Australia

There are many milestones in a parent's life. Your daughter's first step, her first tooth, her first word, the day she starts school, the day she brings home some scrawny, extraverted clown and introduces him as her new boyfriend, the day she leaves school, leaves home, starts going out with with some scrawny, introverted weasel ...

I digress.

It was Daughter's twenty-first birthday a couple of day ago. My little princess is all grown up at last (etc., etc.). I know it's just an arbitrary number and all that but it does seem to mark a major transition – in my life as well as hers. Is it a coincidence that I retired in the same year that she made it to adulthood? Well, yes, but it's sort of weird at the same time, don't you think?

And 21 is not such an arbitrary number as all that, actually. Did you know that recent research has shown that the human brain continues to mature right up until about 21? Did you know that the parts of the brain which mature last are those involving empathy and foresight, emotional control and physical coordination? Doesn't that just make so much sense? Well, it would if you had teenage children! Anyway, it's good to know that Daughter is at last fully human, with a properly-developed brain.

One sure sign of her new maturity, one last milestone in her long maturation, occurred just a couple of days before her 21st birthday. She started her own blog.

So, welcome to the world of emotional and physical stability, Seed of My Loins! You are now, as Shakespeare once said;

... a soldier.
Full of strange oaths, and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon's mouth.

Hmm. Well. What did he know?

Happy birthday, my Angel.

28 May, 2007

Religious Bigot Bans Gay Pride March In Moscow

If you read my previous blog posting and thought I was perhaps overreacting to the dangers of allowing people who are not quite sane – because they believe in magical beings - to run the world, then you might like to consider yesterday's Gay Pride march in Moscow. The march was banned by the city authorities but marchers went ahead anyway, trying to deliver a letter to the city's mayor, Yuriy Luzhkov. They didn't make it.

The march was attacked by right wing-protesters and the marchers were beaten and abused while the police looked on. Eventually, about 70 of the marchers were arrested when the police finally intervened. (Some put the number arrested as high as 100.) Later still, the police also arrested some of the right-wing attackers.

I mention this not because I think gays should have fair treatment in Russia (although I think that everyone should have fair treatment everywhere) but because of the reason the mayor of Moscow is reported to have given for his opposition to the march. He is on record as saying that Gay Pride marches are “the work of Satan”.

So here is a man who believes in magical beings, he feels that these magical beings are influencing the world in which we live, he clearly gets his information from a five-thousand-year-old document produced by someone else who was crazy enough to believe in magical beings, and he probably talks to these invisible beings at least once a week. Yet he is in charge of a whole city! On the orders of this delusional man, gay rights marchers are locked up and refused a voice. And I'm pretty sure he's not receiving any medical treatment for his mental problems.

Homosexuality, whatever you think about it, is at least real. It exists. It is manifested in many, many species, including our own. It is a fact of life. It doesn't hurt anyone or deprive them of their civil liberties. The magical beings that Yuriy Luzhkov believes in are not real. They exist only in stories and in his mind. Yet they get peaceful protesters beaten up and they deny them their right to speak.

Now tell me religion isn't a bad thing.

27 May, 2007

Kentucky Hosts Child-Indoctrination Centre

One of the most disturbing things I know is religion. Sick people, who have completely lost touch with reality and who believe that magic beings made the world, control the world and monitor, reward and punish the behaviours of individuals, are struggling constantly to impose these delusions on everybody. The worst of it all is that these deranged people are able to tell children about their fantasies, even compel them to listen, and threaten them with punishments if they don't believe in the insanity they are being fed.

Quite often the rights of these crazy people are protected by the law – mainly because the people who make the law also believe in magic beings and can see nothing wrong with what they are doing. Religious beliefs dissociate people from reality. People who believe in these magic beings are confused about what is real and what is not. They do not understand how to tell good things from bad things. They cannot easily think for themselves. They believe they must follow rules, written in ancient books, either by people inspired by the magic beings or by the magic beings themselves. That the rules they follow were actually made up by other crazy people, thousands of years ago, is not apparent to them. They are so confused about reality they think that magic beings really did make up the rules.

Honestly, it is scary that so many people can be so insane. It is frightening that we live in a world where people who talk to magic beings alone in their rooms make also make the laws, sit in judgement, and teach our children. If we could just stop them teaching children for a couple of generations, all of this madness would die out. Just think how wonderful that would be.
Why do I mention this? Because I just read about the Creation Museum, which is about to open in a place called Petersburg, Kentucky. This is a 'museum' based on the insane notion that a magic being created the whole universe a few thousand years ago. Its exhibits include, I hear, a diorama where stone age people and dinosaurs are alive at the same time. It is dedicated to a fantasy in which fossils are the result of Noah's flood, dinosaurs roamed the Garden of Eden, and the Grand Canyon was carved in a couple of days. This is the kind of idiocy you are led to once you throw away reason and start believing in magic. It would be easy to laugh at this kind of nonsense, to ridicule these nutcases and their pathetic opinions if it wasn't all so horribly dangerous. This museum of madness, this Creationist Disneyland, is designed to attract children and young people. Kids get special rates. Under-fives are allowed in for free!

What is it going to do to impressionable young minds to see all these distorted and confused exhibits? How much is it going to damage their developing understanding of the world and how it really works? There is absolutely no difference between crazy people presenting religious ideas to children and Holocaust deniers doing the same. Both believe in a twisted fantasy that has nothing to do with reality - but lots to do with their own emotional and psychological problems. Both are distorting the understanding of young minds. Why has no-one stepped in to prevent this abuse of children by these deranged lunatics? We have laws that prevent advertisers misleading people about their products. Why don't these laws stop people passing off a mad fantasy about the world as a genuine museum?

24 May, 2007

Shock Revelation! Successful Authors Starving In Garrets!

Sometimes I feel horribly cynical. Sometimes I feel my contribution can be a little too negative. That's why I don't take part in online forums anymore, it's why I try to avoid talking to people, and it's why I try to refrain from commenting on people's blogs. I just know that what I say will tend to be a downer and, however much I tell myself I'm just being realistic and it's better that I tell people the truth rather than some sugary fantasy, that I give them the benefit of my experience rather than silly, rah-rah encouragement, it pains me to have to be such a wet blanket.

For example, in this world, the people who want to be writers are legion, most of them peachy-keen and trying their hardest. Yet it is so hard to become a successful author that I can hardly bring myself to talk to wannabe writers anymore. It is well known that having a book published is about as likely as winning the lottery. Even the people with enough talent to merit publication (and, let's face it, the bar isn't very high!) so far outnumber the actual opportunities, that they might as well not bother. The manuscript they have slaved over for years is one among tens of thousands and the chances of it getting the attention of an agent, let alone a publisher, let alone a publisher who likes it and is willing to champion it within their company and push it through to print, are minuscule.

What is not so well known is that, even if you beat the odds and get published, the chances of making any money at it are even smaller. I know plenty of authors, some with several books in print, whose earnings amount to a few hundred dollars a year. Almost nothing. The way books are marketed these days, the book shops will give a new book shelf space for about three weeks and then remove it if it isn't selling well. After that, it is almost impossible to get a book into the mainstream book shops unless the publisher is willing to stump up for another round of promotion similar to the book's launch. The turnover of new books in the book shops is therefore very high and the vast majority of them, after their initial exposure, vanish without trace. Other channels – like private sales on the Web – are almost worthless. Without constant marketing, a book just sinks below everyone's awareness.

I mention all this not just because I am a bitter, unpublished author, but because I've been reading Timothy Carter's blog lately and feeling very sorry for him. This young fella has done the impossible and made it into print with his book Attack of the Intergalactic Soul Hunters. He posted recently about how his sales were going – and they're going pretty well. In six months he has sold over a thousand copies. These are sales figures that would make most published authors quite envious. However, his royalties so far amount to just a couple of hundred dollars. Not exactly a living wage. But Carter is undaunted. He has another book due for publication soon and he expects his sales to increase as each new book he writes is added to the corpus on offer.

On the face of it, this seems like a reasonable viewpoint, so I tried to work out how long it would take young Carter to build up a decent income this way. Here's the calculation I did. Let's say Carter can write and have published one new book every year for the next ten years. Let's also say that with each new book, he increases his readership by 50% (so his second book will have 1500 sales in the first six months, the third will have 2,250 and so on.) But let us also expect that, for each book, sales will fall in each six month period by 50% (so, if he sells 100 in the first six months, he will sell just 500 in the second, 250 in the third and so on.) On these assumptions (and leaving inflation aside), Carter's annual income in year ten will be a little under $14,000. (That is about half of what someone on minimum wage could earn in a year.) And by then, we'd probably all agree that Timothy Carter was a very successful author.

(This isn't quite fair because it would be expected that sales of future books would feed back to boost sales of past books to some extent but, on the other hand, I've generously included a fifty percent growth in Carter's popularity with every new book sold. Then again I've assumed a rapid drop-off in sales based on marketing through book shops. Amazon may make the tail-off less dramatic than that.)

The point of all this is, of course, not to frighten poor Mr. Carter – after all, I haven't read Attack of the Intergalactic Soul Hunters, and he's already done hugely better than statistics would predict, and he may be the next J K Rowling for all I know – but to suggest to writers in general that their dreams of fame and fortune are not exactly realistic. This is a business where the publishers and the book shops are the only real winners.

There. See? Wet blanket.

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